Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Offbeat Worlds Collide amid the Citrus Blossoms

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Offbeat Worlds Collide amid the Citrus Blossoms

Article excerpt

In "The Forgetting Tree," the author Tatjana Soli examines the lives of two women brought together on a citrus farm in Southern California.

The Forgetting Tree. By Tatjana Soli. 406 pages. St. Martin's Press. $25.99.

In her ambitious and much admired 2010 novel "The Lotus Eaters" (which won the James Tait Black Prize, one of the most prestigious in Britain), Tatjana Soli explored the experiences of a female war photographer who spent nearly a dozen years in Vietnam, and connected her themes and subject matter not only to Alfred Tennyson but to the "Odyssey."

In her second novel, "The Forgetting Tree," she is no less daring, and no less haunting. Ms. Soli refuses to do the easy thing - - she demands of the reader both patience and trust.

She begins with Claire, the child of refugees from Hungary who lives an urban, bookish life until, at college, she meets the scion of a citrus ranching family from Southern California. Once Claire is living on the ranch, she is gradually converted to both hard work and love of the land, and like many converts, she comes to embrace her new faith much more deeply than those born to it. Ms. Soli effectively evokes the spare beauty of Claire's home: "The moment took Claire back to her early days, peeling an orange as she walked through the rows of trees, dropping a confetti of rind behind her, eating the sun-warmed fruit, ... seeing eternity down the rows the long way, seeing only the next bushy trees across."

But as suburbia relentlessly laps at the margins of their agricultural peace, Claire and her husband toy with the idea of selling, until a failed kidnapping plot results in the murder of their young son (a crime that colors the novel's opening pages). Like many tragedies, this one affects each member of the family in different ways -- Claire's husband wants to get out, as do their two daughters, but Claire becomes even more wedded to the ranch, so that when, 15 years later, she discovers she has breast cancer and must undergo debilitating treatments, she has no way to take care of herself in her isolation. Enter Minna.

Minna is a beautiful young black woman who agrees to spend the summer looking after Claire so that she can take a break from her studies and Claire's family can go about their business. Claire takes to Minna, who is responsible and competent. Other people like Minna, too, including Claire's neighbor, a much-hounded Hollywood playboy whom Minna, an intellectual, doesn't treat very seriously.

Claire is not a good patient, and Minna is moody, but everything seems to be progressing. Claire's treatment stalls when she visits a Mexican clinic specializing in a quack remedy, and her own doctor suspends chemo -- but all in all, she feels the getaway is worth it. A larger difficulty arises when the ranch foreman reveals to Claire that Minna has been giving peculiar (and much resented) orders to himself and the workers that disrupt the regular care of the trees and lead to failure of the crop. …

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